Bishop Francis Clement Kelley (1870-1948)

The only thing I knew about Bishop Kelley was that he authored Blood Drenched Altars, the story of the persecution of the Church in Mexico under the freemason, Plutarco Elias Calles, in the 1920s.  The martyr, Blessed Miguel Pro (1891-1927), was featured in this riveting book. A friend of mine thought that Kelley had written another book about the suffering Church in Mexico, however, that book, No God Next Door, was not the bishop’s work; it was written by Father Michael Kenney, S.J. The Jesuit, Kenney, a contemporary of Kelley’s, references the latter’s work. Both are excellent books. Catholics should not be ignorant of the atrocities that went on not only south of the border in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, but also north of the border (up until Polk’s War of aggression, 1846-1848) when one third of our country flew the Spanish (and later the Mexican) flag.

Bishop Kelley took the Catholic cause of the Mexican faithful and made it his own.  He did everything he could to help the clergy, refugees, and all the faithful exiled after the Carranza Revolution (1914-1920) and during Calles’ persecution, even establishing a seminary for them in Texas so that more Mexican priests could return (even if covertly) to their homeland and re-conquer it for Christ. The exiled Mexican bishops had a friend and a representative in Bishop Kelley, who, while still a priest, was sent to Paris to promote their cause at the World War I Peace Conference.

The Bishop’s Vast Field of Labor

The more I learned about Bishop Kelley, the more I wanted to learn.  This man was one of the most indefatigable champions of the Faith in America.  The list of his accomplishments is astounding.  Whether it came to “street preaching;” military chaplaincy; missionary work in the forgotten corners of the United States; helping the poor, Negroes, Indians, and immigrants; founding hospitals, schools, convents, churches, and seminaries; doing diplomatic services overseas for the Vatican; or fostering literature and the arts (he authored at least ten books, including mystery novels), his name would be on the top of the list in his time. His missionary journal, Extension Magazine, grew to three million subscribers at its zenith.  Here was a man who could down a Jagermeister with anti-prohibitionist author, H.L. Mencken, and show up at some highfalutin cocktail party to wring donations for his missions from rich tycoons. Like St. Paul, he truly “became all things to all men, that [he] might save all” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Francis Kelley was born in Canada on Prince Edward Island in 1870. He entered the seminary in Canada and was ordained for the Detroit diocese in 1893, where he served as a parish priest in the small rural town of Lapeer.  During the 109 days of the Spanish American War he served as a military chaplain. It was while laboring in the outposts of Michigan, however, that Father Kelley encountered what would consume much of his life’s work, i.e., the dismal conditions that priests had to endure in the poorest areas of our Mid-West.

The Catholic Church Extension Society

The pastor from Canada was perplexed.  Why was the Church in American cities doing well, building new parishes, churches, schools, and convents, holding missions, making converts, while in rural America, in the backwoods and frontier areas, the paltriest conditions were tolerated?  Priests serving the poor, far away from “progress,” were living on a pittance, unable to reach Catholics in distant outposts, and unable to educate the faithful with books and schools. Many successful Catholics in the cities were sending money back to their fatherlands for good causes, but totally neglecting their fellow Catholics’ needs here in the country they had chosen to make their new home.  Convinced that the problem lay in an established, almost institutionalized, provincialism, which seemed to have replaced the “universal” dimension of the Catholic Church, Kelley sought and won the support of Archbishop Quigley of Chicago to revitalize the home mission. Together with him, and with the support of a dozen or so other priests, Father Kelley established in 1905 an organization called the Catholic Church Extension Society.  Its general goal was to provide whatever was necessary for the forgotten faithful in the far flung quarters of what was fast becoming an American Catholic diaspora. His first donation came from a newspaper boy who gave him one dollar.  To Father Kelley that was a sure sign of God’s blessing.  Within about ten years, the Extension Society had transformed the Church in rural America.  Everything Catholic had begun to blossom, even in the farthest settlements: Catholics were catechized, Protestants converted, schools and convents established, and new churches were built as more and more priests were sent westward.  Besides Father Kelley’s personal appeals, the Society’s magazine, Extension, of which he was editor, was the major catalyst in the phenomenal success of this enterprise.

What bothered Father Kelley most about the forgotten faithful was that so many of them ended up losing the Faith to transient Protestant zealots, who, in the United States, were particularly mission minded.  In a speech he gave before the first American Catholic Missionary Congress in 1909 he thundered that the blame for this would rest upon those religious who put ambition or comfort above missionary zeal. “I read only a few weeks before penning these lines,” he said, “an appreciation of the ‘Six Great Lights that have gone out in Methodism’ – six bishops who had recently died.  Three of these lights were named Fitzgerald, Joyce and McCabe.  They will witness against us with voices that no grand organs in grander basilicas can drown on the day of reckoning.”  Sometime later, as bishop, Kelley would establish a seminary for Italian-Americans, with bi-lingual professors, because so many Italian immigrants had abandoned the practice of the Faith.  Part of the blame for that was the neglect they received from the predominantly Irish clergy. “Wrapped up in the parochial idea from the beginning,” he warned his fellow clergy at the Congress, “we forget that without the Church Universal we would droop like willows by a dried-up rivulet.”

The Chapel Car Apostolate

Father Kelley was consecrated Bishop of Oklahoma in 1924.  Here he continued his labors not only in that state but for all those in need of the charity of the Extension Society.  One of his benefactors, Mr. Andrew Petty, donated a train car to the Society. They called it the “Chapel Car.” Missionaries would follow the tracks giving missions and delivering goods to hundreds of small town parishes along the way.  These parishes were in desperate need for anything from liturgical items to books, food, clothing, tools, paper, ink, and money.  The “Chapel Car” mission proved so successful that two more cars were donated to the Society by two other impressed donors.

Here was a man who thrived on apostolic labor.  He spent his life trying to make a Catholic America a reality.  Workhorse that he was, Bishop Kelley never could have sustained such a pace for the fifty-four years of his priesthood (twenty-three as a bishop) if he had not nourished his soul with a daily prayer life that was habitual, if not always as quiet as he would have liked. To further God’s blessing upon his own vineyard and upon all his holy labors with the Extension Society, Bishop Kelley called for the Carmelite nuns to come to Oklahoma.  They did so; and vocations to their cloister flourished.

Patron of the Boy Scouts

I almost forgot to mention the work our bishop did to form character, leadership and manual skills in Catholic boys and young men.  The Boy Scouts of America had developed into a promising enterprise in the early 1900s.  Sometime around 1930, several dioceses of the Catholic Church began to sponsor their own scout groups basing their program on that of the BSA.  Soon those groups were approved by the official BSA.  As a bishop, Kelley took an active part in promoting the program and, in 1932, he was appointed Chairman of the Bishops Catholic Committee on Scouting. He expanded the Committee until it eventually included a representative from each Ecclesiastical Province in the United States. In 1934, the American hierarchy approved a “Plan of Cooperation” giving Scouting its full endorsement. Five years later, Bishop Kelley was honored by the Boy Scouts of America with the Silver Buffalo Award.

It is hard to think of any work that Bishop Kelley did not do.  He was a man gifted with abundant talents of nature, but with the humility of heart so accommodating to the perfecting grace of supernature.  Our Lord’s promise “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly” (Romans 10:10) found rich soil in this “man of desires.” Bishop Francis Clement Kelley died in Oklahoma City in 1948.

I do not know if the following list of books is the total of his literary output. Of these ten Blood Drenched Altars is his greatest work.

  • The Last Battle of the Gods (1907)
  • The City and the World (1913) – Short Stories
  • Letters to Jack (1917)
  • Charred Wood, a novel published under the name of Myles Murdach
  • Dominus Vobiscus (1922)
  • Story of Extension (1922)
  • When the Veil is Rent (1929)
  • The Forgotten God (1932)
  • Blood Drenched Altars (1933)
  • Problem Island (1937)
  • The Bishop Jots it Down (1939)
  • Sacerdos et Pontifex (1940)
  • Pack Rat (1942)
  • Tales From the Rectory (1943)